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Disappointing Summer? 5 Steps for a Better Autumn

This was a hard summer for many people. Here's why and what you can do next.

Key points

  • This year, summer seems to have been disappointing for more people than usual.
  • Disappointment is part of life, but sometimes it has complex causes.
  • Learning to manage disappointment begins in childhood, but can be developed in adulthood.
123RF stock image ID:122373997 photog: dtiberio
Source: 123RF stock image ID:122373997 photog: dtiberio

“This hasn’t felt like a real summer,” said Tifani*. “My kids were little during Covid, so this is the first year that they’ve had a school vacation. I was looking forward to it, and so were they! But it’s been a big disappointment.”

“After the years of Covid, I was ready to have a really wonderful summer this year,” said Rikka*. “But it’s already over and I feel like it was just a wash.”

“I had so many projects planned for the summer,” Harry* said, “but I haven’t gotten any of them done. I’m really disappointed in myself. It’s not how I want to start the fall.”

“I don’t know what happened to the summer,” is a phrase I’ve heard every year since I’ve been a psychotherapist. We start the season with all sorts of plans, hopes, and activities, but the season never seems long enough. We often reach September with a sense of disappointment that this summer hasn’t lived up to what we had hoped it would be.

But this year—the first “real” summer since the pandemic—I hear many versions of what Tifani, Rikka, and Harry are saying. Was this summer particularly disappointing for you, too? Do you know why? And what can you do to feel better as you start into the fall?

First, it’s important to recognize that disappointment and other painful or unpleasant feelings are part of life. In her book Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Can Make Us Whole, Susan Cain writes that disappointment is one of a rich mixture of feelings that make up the full range of human experience; it’s important not to simply try to stop the emotions, but to acknowledge them and then to try to think about how to manage them. In fact, it can sometimes be easier to be happy when we can make room for painful and difficult feelings.

Parents often try to shield children from the pain of disappointment, but as I wrote in a previous post, it’s much better to help children learn to manage “optimal” or tolerable disappointments than to avoid them altogether. While traumatic loss and disappointment can create lifetime pain, manageable disappointments and frustrations in childhood can help us build emotional “muscles” for dealing with more difficult experiences as we get older. The “muscles” get built when children feel that the adults in their lives are supporting them and helping them find ways to cope with the hurt.

As adults, we sometimes need help strengthening our feeling muscles. One step is simply to name what you are feeling. Disappointment can be particularly painful when it evokes past, traumatic moments of pain and stress. (I discussed this in some detail in a previous post.)

This season, I’m hearing something besides unhappiness over a summer that didn’t live up to expectations: Many people are talking about not just how disappointed they are as summer is ending, but also how sad and worried they are about the coming year.

Harry, for instance, said, “I’m starting the fall with a sense of dread of what might be coming.”

“It feels like there’s a dark cloud over our heads,” Rikka told me. “So many bad things—natural disasters like fires, storms, and floods; war; political and social conflict; shootings. It seems like hatred is being spewed everywhere, and I just feel like we’re in constant danger. I hate that this is the world my kids are growing up in.”

In other words, this year feelings about unsatisfactory vacations and unfinished projects seem to be compounded by stress, sadness, anxiety and fear about the state of the world. However, this is not to say that all of our current feelings are due to current issues. Recent reports show that these feelings were on the rise long before Covid.

So how do you build the muscles to manage the feelings?

  1. To start, it’s important to recognize, as Cain tells us, that life is always a mixture of bitter and sweet. You don’t have to eject all of the pain and worry in order to have a meaningful, rich, and happy existence. In other words, you can be happy even when life serves up ugliness.
  2. Separate blame from responsibility. You may have caused your own disappointment, for example, by not thinking through the reality of traveling with an infant and a toddler, or not recognizing that your fair-skinned partner was going along with your burning desire to take a trip to a beach in the middle of the summer but would actually spend the whole time sitting in the shade. But you have not caused the environment or society to implode. That said, in either case, neither beating yourself up nor sinking into hopelessness is effective for helping you manage the mixture of feelings that are life’s reality.
  3. Talk to other people. Sharing feelings and discovering that you’re not alone is one of the ways other people can help you strengthen your feeling muscles. Tifani recently told me that she had started going back to an in-person yoga class. “I think it’s helping my body get stronger,” she said, “but it’s also helping strengthen my psyche. I had forgotten how important it was to be in a room with other people.”
  4. Find realistic ways to take responsibility. Whether it’s apologizing to your partner and finding a better way to communicate or planning a different kind of vacation with your children, or finding ways to contribute something (even if it’s very small) to improving the environment or addressing your social and political concerns, taking realistic responsibility can be the first step to taking action. And taking action will help you feel better.
  5. Find and do things that give you pleasure, peace, and happiness. This can be exercise, spending time with friends or family, spending time alone, reading a good book, baking a delicious pastry, listening to music, building homes for the homeless, tutoring in a program for at-risk children, or any one of a range of other activities. But keep in mind that these feelings will always exist alongside other, less pleasant emotions.

Doing any of the activities I’ve outlined can help you manage painful emotions. But remember: Happiness and pain both exist in everyone's life. Obviously, if unhappiness outweighs happiness, you should take steps to address it. But together, they are part of the mix of feelings that make for a rich and meaningful life.

* Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, by Susan Cain (2022).

More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
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